Corporation for Public Broadcasting
(Note: This article is to appear in On The Horizon. Copyright 1996 Jossey Bass Publishing. May not be copied and/or retransmitted without the the expressed permission of Jossey Bass.)
Not too long ago on On The Horizon's Internet discussion group, Gary Chapman of the University of Texas/Austin was kind enough to offer a reprint of a recent editorial he composed for the Los Angeles Times. In it, he mourns the rise and fall of the World Wide Web as an open, public, and democratic medium.
Essentially, Chapman argues that the recent commercialization of the Internet has led to an online "tragedy of the commons," a metaphor originally coined by ecologist Garrett Hardin 30 years ago. This "tragedy" occurs when too many people find themselves in the same public space, each one of them pursuing his or her own personal gains. And as they succeed in conquering individual pieces of the communal pie, the commons is left balkanized and stratified, with little room left for use by the masses.
I was deeply struck by Chapman's thoughts, for his piece is one of the few essays I've seen in the mainstream press that actually paints a troublesome (yet realistic, in my eyes) view of the Internet. Usually, mass media rhetoric of the so-called Information Highway seems to bounce from one binary extreme to the other. We often see the 'Net portrayed as a divinely-inspired modern miracle that can be accessed by any American with a 14.4 modem. And sometimes, we also see it painted as an over-hyped playtoy of the elite that holds little hope of ever altering the status quo.
Ah, the Internet - saviour or snake oil to society? Probably both, probably neither, depending on who you ask and what mood they're in at the time. The Internet has become so gargantuan and ever-changing that pundits can argue either side til they're blue in the face, yet still come out without a solid answer. But as Chapman points out so eloquently in his essay, no matter what we all think of the Internet's place in the American myth, one thing is for sure:
It certainly ain't what it used to be.
For the last 18 months or so I've tried to do my best to put a positive spin on the exponential growth and mass demystification of the Internet. Sure, it's not as intimate and tightly knit as it was just a few years ago, but the more the merrier, right? For the most part, I think I believe that. Though the 'Net now has more than its fair share of billboards and cyberdreck, it's become more accessible to the average family. And because of the current fare wars among internet service providers, nearly any school, parent, or student with a computer can now afford to get wired and surf the Web. The axioms of Economy 101 come out on top, and old-fashioned competition brings the Internet to the commonfolk after all.
So what happens to that tragedy of the commons that Chapman warns of? Do we mourn the loss of an idyllic, Jeffersonian electronic village now that ad agencies have started to stake claim to cyberspace? Chapman is certainly justified in his attempt to keep us mindful of these metaphors, for it is all too easy for Internet users to become lost in the multimediated hype of the Web. Fortunately, thanks to the hard work of conscientious policymakers, public advocates, and local grass-root efforts, affordable Internet access to schools and disadvantaged communities is no longer a naive pipe dream. Over the next few years, the information highway will have enough off-ramps for nearly anyone who wants access to it.
Yet despite this new-found commitment to high quality telecommunications access, I must admit to another fear (one that I have yet to decide if it's justified or not): the inability for low-end users to produce online content without a high-end budget.
When the World Wide Web first began to appear in schools and homes in 1994, writers including myself lauded its publishing potential for students. In order to produce a website, all you needed to know was Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), the collection of standardized codes that allows anyone from software engineers to middle school students to develop online content. With HTML, you can create hypertext links and add pictures to your site with even the most basic computer skills. It was, in the eyes of many an amateur web developer, a level playing field: HTML was simple enough for young people to create high-quality, functional products, just as well as many adults could.
And for all of 1994 and a good part of 1995, Web publishing remained as this seemingly democratic medium, where anyone with access to a Web server had the opportunity to dazzle the online populace with their HTML skills. But as the months passed and more people got wired up to the Internet, the quality and number of professional websites increased geometrically. Competition begat better webwork, as well as new HTML standards. Clickable images were an early innovation, as were the use of tables and other tricks introduced by Netscape.
As the commercial side of the Internet continued to expand, the Web became more functional, more stylish, and more multimedia-like, just as the hype in the press suggested it would be. This desire to build a better website spawned powerful design innovations such as Java (miniature software applications that can produce anything from animations to individualized data processing), Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML, a form of hypertextual 3-D rendering), and Shockwave (interactive multimedia), all of which can turn a website into a complex and mesmerizing experience for the user.
Thanks to these multimedia innovations, the World Wide Web is fast becoming the interactive environment that so many folks in the online community have hoped for. Yet with every step forward in Web-based content design, there has been little to no effort to keep educational publishers up to speed. It's true that more schools than ever can now produce their own websites, but for the majority of these schools, web publishing has meant little more than a few picture scans, a message from the principal, and perhaps a nice home page from the resident Internet whiz kid lucky enough to have a 28.8 modem at home. The ability for many schools to publish on the Web is there, as is the desire. The quality of these websites, though, is another issue entirely....
Can school websites honestly compete with the quality of sites developed by commercial content providers? Of course not, and nor should they have to. But I still fear that we may begin to see a disturbing trend where the quality of online student publishing will fall further and further behind the rest of the 'Net as other web developing communities can afford to implement these exciting new innovations.
In any other media, such as television, radio, or print publishing, no one would ever expect a student-developed product to be able to stand up against something produced by professional media designers. But for a brief, yet wonderful time on the Internet, the distance between student-produced content and 'professional' content was much closer than we could have ever expected. The trend is shifting back to reality, it would seem, but only because we've let it go this way.
With each passing month, web developing tools, publishing kits, and designware in general become more affordable to the educational community. Teachers and administrators must do more to follow these advances, and even be willing to put parts of their technology budgets to obtaining them. Spending all of your districts funds on wiring the schools is the wrong approach, for without the ability to publish your own online content and to teach students how to do it, you end up missing more than half of the point. The Internet has become what it is because users can add to it just as easily as they can take from it. It's a two way street, folks.
Building the perfect website isn't as easy or cheap as it used to be. But now that our schools are beginning to demonstrate a commitment to high-quality Internet access, we need to see beyond having kids surfing the 'Net and doing little else. For surfing is merely riding the wave, a passive joyride where other forces take you for a spin. Students have the talent to _make waves_ just as well as anyone else, so why not try to find the means to give them that opportunity?
The online commons has certainly gotten crowded as of late, but that doesn't mean that there isn't enough room for lots of creative kids to carve out a corner and get noticed. If they only had the tools and support to get out there and shine.